The future of the remaining 52 United States hostages in Iran on the 300th day of their captivity is ensnared and entangled in a power struggle as complicated and intricate as the design on a Persian carpet.
The power struggle is for control of post-Shah revolutionary Iran, and to a great extent both the US and the American hostages are pawns in it.
In the current climate in Iran, to be tagged "soft" on the hostages or on the US is even more dangerous politically than being tagged "soft" on communism in the US of the 1950s.
In broad terms, the two forces doing battle in the center of the chaotic Iranian political arena are:
* The Shia Muslim fundamentalists, who want a theocratic state in which the clergy or their proxies would actually run the government and in which (they maintain) anything but their interpretation of Shia Islam corrupts. The most prominent of these is Ayatollah Muhammad Beheshti, leader of the Islamic Republic Party (IRP), which controls the Iranian Majlis (parliament).
* The secular republicans, loyal to Shia Islam, who believe that in the modern world government is not the province of the clergy and that the times demand intelligent use of contemporary technology and ideas, even if the latter originate in the West. The most exposed remaining standard- bearer for this approach is President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, who is very much on the defensive but apparently determined to hang on rather than abandon the field.
As always in Iran, many more characters are engaged in this power strugle than those immediately apparent. In the maneuvering today are individuals, motivated as much by personal ambition as by ideological commitment, jockeying for favor with the patriarchal Ayatollah Khomeini or for advantageous positions whenever he is no longer on the scene.
It is this, to a great extent, that is keeping the hostages waiting in captivity. After delays for some kind of resolution throughout the spring of this year, a consensus developed to wait for the newly elected parliament to decide what to do with the hostages as soon as it had disposed of its initial business. The waiting continues.
On the 259th day of the hostages' captivity (July 20), the Majlis met and elected a fundamentalist Speaker, Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani. On the 281st day of their captivity (Aug. 11), parliament got around to approving as prime minister the pro-fundamentalist Muhammad Ali Rajai, whom the clerics had forced on President Bani-Sadr. Since then, there has been stalemate over Cabinet nominations -- because Mr. Bani-Sadr reportedly is blocking Mr. Rajai's attempts to put government ministries into the hands of inexperienced fellow pro-fundamentalists.
If there has been a watershed date in the hostages' ordeal so far, it was the 172nd day of their detention, April 24. That was when the US attempt to rescue them by an air and ground operation failed in the Iranian desert at Tabas, far short of the US Embassy compound in Tehran where 50 of the then 53 captives were being held. (One of the 53, Richard Queen, was released for medical reasons on the 250th day of captivity, July 11.)
After that abortive rescue mission, the captors said they were dispersing somf of the hostages to cities in other parts of Iran.
But more significantly, there was a change thereafter in the diplomatic game between the US and Iran over the hostages -- without any softening of the impasse between the two governments. Until then, both the Carter administration and the US news media had kept the hostage issue in the public eye, with the former seeking to organize maximum international pressure on the authorities in Iran (difficult though the latter were to identify).
The response from Iran was loud insistence that the hostages would be freed only when the ailing ousted Shah was returned to Iran to face trial.
Since the rescue attempt, the US has muted its public stance on the hostages, with the Carter administration turning to quiet behind-the-scenes diplomacy through third parties, whenever and wherever possible. The subsequent passing of the Shah on the 266th day of the hostages' captivity (July 27) has robbed the Iranians of the issue of his return. They themselves now are less strident about the hostages -- while stonewalling as much as ever.
There is, however, revived talk from Iran about putting hostages on trial as "spies." The more optimistic speculation is that this could be a face-saving way for the fundamentalist-controlled parliament to get itself off the hook on the hostage issue. A virtually helpless President Bani-Sadr has long seen the crisis as counterproductive for Iran itself.
According to this same speculation, any trials would be token proceedings. And to avoid outside furore, hostages arraigned would be expelled once the trials were over.